Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President

New documentary shows importance of musical friendships to his life and career

FORMER PRESIDENT Jimmy Carter is known to most younger Americans today as a resilient advocate for human rights and free and fair elections, a seemingly ageless 95-year-old cancer survivor who builds houses for Habitat for Humanity in his spare time.

But back in the day, Carter was the first president to openly embrace the support of rock 'n' roll, jazz, gospel, and country musicians, not just on the campaign trail but as friends.

His friendships with Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and Gregg Allman – all of whom appear in interviews for the film – weren't cynical endorsements, but extensions of Carter's own musical taste. The friendships lasted well beyond Carter's single term in office from 1977-1981.

'Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President' is a new documentary from Shore Fire Productions that uses vibrant archival footage and brand-new interviews to paint a portrait of this often-misunderstood chief executive and Georgia native.

The film premiered in theatres a couple of weeks ago and hits TV on demand in October. We spoke to director Mary Wharton and producer Chris Farrell.

Much of the early press for your film focuses on the "reveal" that the person who smoked pot on the White House roof with Willie Nelson was Carter's son Chip. Does it annoy you that that anecdote seems to be getting so much attention?

Chris: We're not surprised! It's a funny, amusing anecdote, but almost like a throwaway at the top of the film, to just get it out of the way.

Mary: Indie documentaries have a hard enough time in normal times, so I'm just grateful people are taking notice! Whatever it takes to draw people in. It's like the old-fashioned tent revivals – you get people clapping, singing, whatever it takes to get them inside the tent to hear the message!

click to enlarge Carter with Willie Nelson. - PHOTO COURTESY OF GREENWICH ENTERTAINMENT
Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment
Carter with Willie Nelson.

A wonderful thing about the film is it shows how funny Jimmy Carter really is – he's always had a great sense of humor, and not everyone knows that about him.

Mary: He can be mischievous too! Bob Dylan makes a point of saying near the end of the film how multi-faceted Carter is. He was a Naval officer, a president, this very serious, intelligent man. And then you watch the sheer joy Carter experiences when he's around musicians playing, and enjoying the music. It's just another layer.

Chris discovered this connection Carter had to the music of the time. And he thought it could make a great film. I had never known that about Carter.

There is a little bit of history in the film -- for example, the sad juxtaposition of how the Iran hostage crisis sort of deflated any sense of new possibilities.

Mary: There are certain things we'd be remiss in not covering, like the Iran hostage crisis or the Camp David Middle East peace accords. But we also didn't want just a list of accomplishments.

We felt including some of the history was important for younger people who see the film. We showed an early cut to a 15-year-old intern of ours. She had never heard of the Camp David accords and was fascinated by it.

Chris: It really shows the character of Carter. He was able to bring together these two longtime enemies, Israel and Egypt, and establish trust, and bridge that gap. So it really does fit in with the central theme of the film in that way.

click to enlarge Dizzy Gillespie with Carter. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CARTER PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY
Photo courtesy of Carter Presidential Library
Dizzy Gillespie with Carter.

When I saw the scene where Dizzy Gillespie calls Carter onstage to sing "Salt Peanuts" with him – badly – I thought, you'd never see this today. A politician doing anything this spontaneous and fun.

Mary: People have an image of Carter as this fuddy-duddy Mr. Rogers type. But he's up there singing "Salt Peanuts" and just cracking up! He's always willing and able to make fun of himself.

Chris: Today, there's typically a calculus involved in any decision in politics. Will it get me votes? Will it get me in trouble? But the thing you see about Jimmy Carter is he didn't enjoy gospel or jazz or rock 'n' roll because it would get him votes. It's just who he is. That's another example of his moral courage and moral leadership.

People are used to politicians today touting celebrity endorsements. But at the time, Carter's friendships with rock and country artists weren't guaranteed to be popular.

Mary: One thing we want to get across with the film is how much times have changed. When Jay-Z went to the White House to visit the Obamas, nobody made a big deal of it. Here was a guy whose career was originally built on representing his experience as a former drug dealer, and it wasn't a problem, it wasn't even mentioned.

But back in the '70s, when Gregg Allman was arrested for cocaine after Carter had formed a friendship with him and the Allman Brothers, any other politician would have immediately distanced themselves. Most politicians at the time would have seen it as career suicide to keep associating with a rock star arrested for drugs.

It was a major risk for Jimmy Carter to voice support for Gregg during that moment of crisis. But Carter didn't worry about whether it would cost him votes – to him, it was the right thing to do to stand by a friend.

Tell me about the timeline and compilation of the interviews. Gregg Allman of course passed away in 2017.

Mary: The interview with Gregg is the only one we didn't do. That was done for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Our writer, Bill Flanagan, knew the interview existed and the Hall of Fame kindly allowed us to use it.

All the other interviews we shot over the course of about a year and a half, beginning in 2018 and finishing up in spring 2019.

We interviewed Jimmy twice, for two hour-long interviews. A real highlight of this whole experience was the private audience we had with the Carters, to show them the final cut of the film, before COVID struck. We watched the film with them at the Plains High School. It was important for us to get their stamp of approval on the film.

click to enlarge Carter being interviewed for the film in Plains, Ga. - PHOTO COURTESY GREENWICH ENTERTAINMENT
Photo courtesy Greenwich Entertainment
Carter being interviewed for the film in Plains, Ga.

The big question: How the hell did you get an interview with Bob Dylan, who almost never does interviews?

Mary: (laughs) Bill Flanagan had interviewed Dylan before, and has a great relationship with Dylan's manager. Bill wrote a very convincing letter about our film project, requesting an interview with Dylan to get his thoughts about Jimmy Carter, and Carter's importance to music and to the world.

Chris: Pinning Dylan down to a specific time and place was its own challenge, let's just say (laughs). We didn't know for sure if it would ever happen, and sort of adopted this we'll-believe-it-when-we-see-it attitude. But we stayed packed and ready to go, anywhere, anytime, for the moment we might get word that Dylan would see us.

But when it actually happened, Dylan was so generous with his time. He stayed and talked to us a lot longer than we expected, and came really prepared with what he wanted to say about Jimmy.

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